First robotics camp of summer ends in a tournament

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The summer robotics camp for middle school and future high school students drew to a close this past week. After several days of building robots and writing code, the eleven campers spent the afternoon of Friday, June 14 competing in a friendly competition amongst themselves. The camp has grown since last summer. More students have joined, and the camp now takes place in the high school’s new technology center instead of the old portables that housed the computer lab. The campers also now have a regulation sized field, built with short wooden walls instead of marked out on the floor with tape. The game remains the same. The campers play a robotics game called “Star Struck.”  Competitors must use their robot to knock over, lift or toss as many large yellow jacks onto the opponent’s half of the field. The jacks are balanced along the top of a wooden partition that runs down the center of the pitch. With half a minute of autonomous movement and a little over two minutes of manually-controlled playing time, the matches are decided quickly. By the end of each match, the team with the highest number of jacks on their side of the field loses. For the first several days of the week long camp the students constructed their robots on the new tables in the technology classroom. Each putters around on continuous treads that resemble a tank’s, and grabs objects with an extendable claw arm. The students pilot the robots with a controller that looks similar to the accessory for a PlayStation or an X-Box. Mike Challandar, robotics coach and recently retired high school math teacher, says that the kids are used to these types of controllers, since they may have something similar at home. Still, he says, it is a different experience to operate something off screen, in the real world, and there is a learning curve. After the robots were built, students spent roughly a day and a half working on their code. The code comes into play during the autonomous period at the beginning of each match. Their goal is to program the robot with a code that will instruct the robot to score a point in 30 seconds without the students working the controller. After days of working through the construction and the coding, the students are rewarded with a tangible product of their efforts. “When [the robot] does the thing it was meant to do, their faces light up,” Challandar says. The students finished building and coding on Friday morning, just hours before the tournament was scheduled. This camp is set at this fast pace by design. The schedule was made by current Winters High School student and robotics team member Diego Escamilla. He is hoping to establish this camp as a kind of Winters tradition, like Earthquake Festival, he says. His older sister, Julia Escamilla, started this camp for her Capstone Project two years ago. This year she came back to run the computer program that times the matches. She sat at the front of the classroom beside the field, calling out times and winning teams. Diego filmed each match while standing on a chair in the back. Diego had difficulty getting his Capstone Project approved by the school, as each project is supposed to be unique and the first camp was created by his sister. He was able to prove that his was different by arranging a unique structure to the campers’ days. His sister set up a circuit of projects for each day. Diego decided that his approach would be to, “throw everyone into the water.” He also has the benefit of improved technology for the robotics department. For the first camp, Julia had the students program robots that could run an invisible maze. Now Diego gets to lead the camp with an improved work space and an actual field. This year the camp was so well attended and enjoyed that Challendar plans to run a second week-long camp at the end of the summer. The students will build robots for a different game for the next camp, though Challandar believes they will still be able to use the skills they learned while building and programing at this camp. As the tournament goes on the teams’ names are written onto a bracket at the front of the class. Between each match they rush their robots back to their workstations, where they check the batteries and fix any small breaks caused by malfunctions or crashes. Members of the high school robotics team keep the scores and even participate in the tournament to make up for a missing player. Watching what the 11 campers were able to accomplish in the short time the had, Diego remarks that he is impressed by the way the camp turned out. “I’m proud,” he says.]]>

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